John Shearer: Checking Out Former Rep. Tommie Brown’s Papers At UTC

  • Tuesday, April 25, 2023
  • John Shearer

When Dr. Tommie Brown was finishing at Howard High in the early 1950s and planning to go to college, she would not have been able to write any class papers for the University of Chattanooga, which later became UTC.

The reason was that UTC did not allow even the limited admission of black students until 1963.

But in quite a historical turnabout in obviously changing times, the school has now gladly accepted and embraced the former state representative’s and former professor’s personal papers and other important items from her career for its archival collection.

As was announced recently in a media release by UTC, she has donated some 125 boxes of her papers to the UTC Library’s Special Collections.

While the papers are still being processed and will not be accessible to the general public or researchers for more than a year or so, Special Collections director Carolyn Runyon did recently pull out a few items at the UTC Library and discussed Dr. Brown’s impact.

As a black woman coming along with the second wave of trailblazers just after the initial days of landmark civil rights achievements of the 1950s and ‘60s, Dr. Brown was able to be a trendsetter both in Chattanooga in her job at UTC and in Nashville as an elected official.

“I think that Dr. Brown fills a unique spot in the city’s history in that she is a black woman who shows all this leadership in agencies and holds these key leadership positions in the immediate post-civil rights era,” Ms. Runyon said. “Dr. Brown is really coming into her own in the 1980s, especially.”

As evidence, Ms. Runyon pulled out two pieces of information from her collection. One was a copy of a lawsuit related to her being a lead plaintiff in the successful 1989 federal lawsuit that resulted in Chattanooga switching to a City Council and district-elected form of government. That in turn allowed more likely minority or diverse representation on the council, since multiple districts were to have a majority representation by minority groups.

Ms. Runyon also pulled out a letter she had written to TVA over a black woman manager there getting laid off during the large staff layoffs under TVA head Marvin Runyon (no relation), also in the late 1980s. The moves had been made to cut costs and streamline the changing federal agency.

Of course, she had been for years fighting both injustice and to be an example of the justice that still was available in America decades ago for those who found the cracks to squeeze through and seize limited opportunities.

Reared in the Bushtown/North Highland Park area of Chattanooga as the daughter of Phillip Brown Sr., who worked two jobs, she had gone to Dillard University in New Orleans on a scholarship after Howard High. She later received a master’s in social work from Washington University in St. Louis after initially beginning her master’s work at Atlanta University.

After serving as a social worker for Hamilton County and already being active in the NAACP, she began work at UTC in 1971 – two years after it became part of the UT system. She stayed until 1998, creating the social work program and becoming the first black woman to head a department at the school beginning in 1980.

While at UTC, she was considered a source of support for black students and others historically marginalized, Ms. Runyon said, and she also brought noted woman activist Gloria Steinem to the UTC Student Center to speak in November 1972.

She also received her doctorate in 1984 from Columbia University in New York, with her dissertation being a black leadership case study. It is also among her personal papers donated.

“Her dissertation research is so well documented that it can be recreated,” said Ms. Runyon.

After Rep. C.B. Robinson’s retirement from the state legislature, she ran for his seat in 1992, was elected and served until after the 2012 elections.

“She is that American dream story of potential and hard work paying off,” Ms. Runyon said.

The Brown Academy on East Eighth Street is also named in her honor.

Ms. Runyon said the move to donate the papers, which had been in storage in East Chattanooga for a period, came in 2021, when close friend the Rev. Ann Pierre had contacted former UTC administrator Dr. Richard Brown. That set the wheels in motion for the donation.

While some papers of noted Chattanoogans have been donated to various places, with former Mayor Robert Kirk Walker’s going to the Chattanooga Public Library, these will now join at UTC those of former music professor and composer Dr. Roland Carter and former Chattanooga Mayor Ralph Kelley. Ms. Runyon said Mr. Kelley’s papers are also just in the early stages of being catalogued, like with Dr. Brown’s papers.

I had also hoped to interview the 88-year-old Dr. Brown for this story and have reached out and hope to talk with her down the road for possibly a follow-up story.

But this woman, who also has a brother, Phillip Brown, had been quoted in the media release put out by UTC that she hopes the papers can serve in part as inspiration to those young people who realize they can dream and achieve, too, as they look ahead at their lives.

Ms. Runyon thinks the papers – which also include items like her correspondence as a state legislator and special summits and events she was involved with -- will be an important historical resource for those looking back, too.

“This is the kind of resource that can support researchers of many different types,” the archivist librarian said, adding that school officials eventually hope much of it is available online. “We want UTC faculty and students to engage in it.

“But I think Dr. Brown’s life and Dr. Brown’s papers can be turned into engaging programming for more general audiences, from documentary filmmakers to even contemporary researchers."

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